Statue of Freedom
What is the story behind the statue on top of the Capitol dome?
When Members and visitors enter the Capitol, they do so under the watchful eye of the Statue of Freedom. She faces East rather than toward the National Mall and Monuments because the East Front of the Capitol was then, and is now, the main entrance to the building. It was felt she should face visitors rather than having her back to them.
The statue was erected in 1863 during the Civil War. She stands on a base inscribed with the words "E Pluribus Unum" -- out of many, one. The brooch which pins her robes together has the initials "U.S." on it. During her installation ceremony, President Lincoln ordered a 35-gun salute, one volley for each state in existence at the time. Lincoln had hoped that the Statue's installation would be seen as a sign of determination that the construction on the Capitol would be completed to govern a Union which would, in the end, survive.
Ironically, the bureaucratic supervisor who had approved her initial design had been the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who left Lincoln's cabinet to become president of the Confederacy. Davis is responsible for the Statue's headgear being mistaken so often for an Indian headdress. It is actually a Roman helmet, decorated with a ring of stars, and a crest consisting of an eagle's head, feathers and extended talons.
Davis disliked the first design featuring a cloth cap known as a "liberty cap," worn by freed Roman slaves (and French revolutionaries). As a defender of slavery, Davis rejected the idea of having a symbol of freedom from slavery adorn the Capitol. He asked the designer, Thomas Crawford, for a re-design featuring a helmet to signify a strong defense and to complete the imagery of the statue's one hand resting upon the hilt of a sword while the other holds a shield. The symbolism is a bit confused because the statue was originally conceived as a monument to liberty (a cap and flagpole), and then to freedom through victory (laurel wreath) and peace (olive branch), and finally, as freedom through strength (helmet, shield, sword).
Her vital statistics are impressive. She is 19'6" tall and weighs 14,985 pounds. She was designed in 1856, her plaster model was made in Italy, she was cast in bronze just outside of Washington, and was transported and erected in five (still-visible) separate sections. She is protected from storms by ten lightning rods, attached to her headdress, shoulders, and shield. She had her first make-over in 1993, her complexion having suffered considerable pitting and corrosion over 130 years. It took a very large helicopter and an even larger insurance policy to lower her from her perch, 288 feet above ground. She sat on the Capitol Plaza for four months of restoration work, and was returned safely to her lofty position on October 23, 1993.
For more information and pictures of the Statue of Freedom, visit the website of the Architect of the Capitol.